How to get flexible work hours

When 9-to-5 doesn’t fit into your family, here’s how to customize your work arrangements.

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The trend of employers being more open to what has been termed “family-friendly” or “work-life” arrangements is on the upswing. In Canada, there are organizations, like Work & Family Foundation Canada, that provide research on the subject, advice for employees and services for employers looking to institute the kinds of policies that will help them retain staff and make their company more appealing to the new generation of workers.

Meanwhile, Canada’s Top Family Friendly Employers program recognizes companies that already offer flexible hours, compressed workweeks (for example, 40 hours in four days), job sharing, the ability to work from home and other scenarios that help working parents.

Some jobs are more flexible than others
Often office jobs lend themselves better to flexible work than manufacturing, retail or other shift work and factory jobs. “If you’re on the factory floor and the line starts at 8:30 in the morning,” says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family, “you’ve got to be there at 8:30 — there’s no opportunity to say, ‘can I come in at 9:15?’ What we are seeing is that manufacturing facilities and even heavy industry, like gas and oil, which may not be able to flex on a day-to-day basis, might flex on a month-to-month basis.”

Some mining companies fly in workers to a job site for three weeks and then they’ll be home for three weeks. And when they are at work, they’re offered video conferencing so they can read bedtime stories to their children. Even retailers that have historically demanded flexibility from employees are coming around. “They’re using online programs to make it possible for employees to go in and not just see their schedules, but have control over shift changes,” says Spinks. “That’s customization.”

HOW TO APPROACH YOUR BOSS
According to Pat Katepoo, the creator of workoptions.com, a website that helps working parents negotiate flexiblity at their current job, these kinds of agreements are more often hammered out between the employee and her direct manager. “That’s where success happens, despite the company policy, despite the industry, despite the history.” If you’re thinking of approaching your boss, here’s how to do it.

STEP 1: Build a case
Check with your HR department in case there are policies and programs on the books that aren’t being used. And if not, says Spinks, “ask your colleagues if there has been any precedent.” She also suggests looking at other companies within your sector. “Maybe your company doesn’t have policies, but the one down the street has all kinds of flexibility.”

Go to the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer to download case studies and research. And, if necessary, quote the White House. “I found this particulary useful for senior execs who don’t buy into [flex policies] yet,” says Spinks, referring to Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility, a 2010 US Presidential report stating, “the best available evidence suggests that encouraging more firms to consider adopting flexible practices can potentially boost productivity, improve morale, and benefit the economy.” As Spinks puts it, “You can’t say this is just fluff or a women’s issue if the President’s economic advisers say this is a good idea.”

Read on for tips on writing a proposal & convincing your colleagues>STEP 2: Write a formal proposal
“Even though the motivation is personal,” says Katepoo, “the presentation to the manager must show the business case: How does the work get done and how does the employer benefit from it? And put it in writing.”

Jason Gennaro covered all his bases with the written proposal he brought to his supervisor at the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario. His wife was expecting their fifth child and he wanted to help more at home. Though he was entitled to four months parental leave, Gennaro was in the midst of redesigning the Ministry’s website, so he proposed a variation: He’d go on leave for two months, then work exclusively from home for two months. After that, he’d work three days in the office and telecommute the other two. “I wrote out what my schedule would be,” he says, “the hours and days working, what they could expect from me, my use of equipment, modes of communication, response time, backup plans in case there were any issues. I suggested a duration and turned it into a pilot project with an evaluation plan so we could discuss the success of arrangement.”

Not surprisingly, Gennaro’s proposal was approved, and the arrangement proved beneficial to all. “I spent a ton of quality time with my youngest daughter and the rest of my family. All of my work was completed on time — in fact, I won an award for the website redesign.” Now at a new media relations job in the Ministry, Gennaro is in the office every day, having voluntarily let go of his telecommuting arrangement. “It just doesn’t work for the new position. You have to assess your situation; not all jobs are available for flex work.”

STEP 3: Convince your colleagues
Bocz has felt very supported by her co-workers as she’s home-schooled her son. But, she says, “I would always run into people who would say, ‘Oh, I guess you’re in your pyjamas.’ ‘I bet you’re sitting in the backyard.’ ‘It must be nice to work from home.’” Bocz is officially in the office every Tuesday, and will make the effort to come in for meetings and social events that happen outside those days. And she never hides her arrangement. “This way,” she says, “they know where I am, and what I am doing.” Spinks has one last piece of advice for keeping co-worker bitterness at bay. “Don’t choose Friday as a non-office day. If every Thursday you say, ’bye, have a nice weekend.’ They think, ‘crap we’re going to be here all day tomorrow. That’s not fair.’” She suggests taking Mondays off if you’re looking for long weekends. “On Monday morning people don’t realize you’re not there until noon, and then it’s only half a day until you’re back.”

A version of this article appeared in print in our May 2012 issue with the headline: “Your hours” (pp. 66-68).

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